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Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Cho Oyu Ski Descent and Discussion of 8,000-meter Ski Descents

Cho Oyu ski descent and discussion of 8,000-meter ski descents. Fewer than 40 people have skied from an elevation of 8,000m or greater. In 1978 Nicolas Jaeger and Jean Afanassieff quietly made tracks into history when they strapped their skis to their feet at 8,200m on Everest and skied down. By 1999, 31 people in the world had descended from an elevation of 8,000m or greater. In 2000 the Marolt brothers from Aspen, Colorado reached what their altimeters had indicated as the shoulder or central summit of Shishapangma. Their descent marked the first from above 8,000m for anyone in the Western Hemisphere. As the fall of 2000 faded to winter, Laura Bakos of Telluride, Colorado became the first person from the Western Hemisphere to finally ski off the summit of an 8,000m peak with her descent of Cho Oyu.

Last August John Griber, Douglas Stoup, and I left for an attempt to ski and snowboard Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak. Our team arrived at the Cho Oyu Advanced Base Camp (18,700') on September 6. We were greeted by exceptionally calm and clear weather for the first two weeks while we established Camp I (20,950') and Camp II (23,450'). At Camp II, on the morning of September 17, three days after leaving ABC for an acclimatization trip, Griber came down with acute pulmonary edema. As we descended his condition continued to worsen, forcing Ben Marshall and me to administer Niphedipine. At one point over 22,000', where the terrain was too flat to drag Griber, Marshall carried him on his back. The rescue effort was aided when Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience ran an oxygen canister up to help with John’s deteriorating condition. With oxygen and rest at Camp I, Griber was able to walk on his own accord to ABC.

Returning to make the summit on this expedition was no longer an option for John. With a small opening in the weather, Doug and I decided to try for the summit on September 21, but descended to ABC with high winds plowing over the summit and a stomach virus maligning Doug. Both John and Doug left for home, leaving me as the only member of our three-man team.

The possibility of another summit bid seemed scarce as a week of snow and high winds followed. To add to my deteriorating morale, I received word that high winds had destroyed the tents in Camp I. Remarkably, Camp I was rebuilt with new tents and most of the climbers retrieved the gear they had stashed in the tents.

On September 28, in snowy conditions, I joined the remaining members of the IMG team for our last chance at the summit. Leaving Camp III (24,800') at 3 a.m. on the night of September 30, carrying skis and using oxygen, I made a six-hour push to the summit. Conditions were calm and clear upon reaching the summit and after spending an hour resting and enjoying the outstanding views of the Himalaya, I decided to attempt the descent on skis. Standing there I watched the six others on the summit descend. With one last look over my shoulder toward Everest, I clicked my boots into the skis and started down the mountain. Rolling over the first headwall off of the summit plateau the conditions quickly improved to a chalky but firm sas- trugi. Exhausted from the effort of skiing at just under 27,000', I could only link seven or eight turns before collapsing into what felt like cardiac arrest. Skiing far to the skier’s right of the ascent path I bypassed Camp III and the Yellow Band on sun-crusted snow before skiing into Camp II, where I stopped using oxygen. An hour and a half had passed since I left the summit.

After resting a few hours in Camp II, I skied the best six to eight inches of Himalayan powder, was forced to rappel once over the ice cliff directly above Camp I, and finished the skiing on a great 300m section of refrozen corn before sliding into Camp I. It took an hour to ski from Camp II. A little after 7 p.m. that evening I walked into ABC tired and amazed it all came together. Twenty-four years after Jaeger and Afanassieff’s descent, K2, Kangchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Lhotse, and Manaslu still await significant descents off their faces.

Kristoffer Erickson